Monday, June 24, 2013

Supporting Children's Emotional Development

Zach had just finished preschool;  as we pulled away on the last day he got a bit emotional and said:  "I'm gonna miss that preschool.....I'm gonna miss it every single day, I'm gonna miss all the kids there and playing with them and I'm gonna miss the girl I had a crush on.....all of them....Charlotte, and Lindy...."

I have often wondered why my brother Zach felt only sadness while leaving on his last day of preschool. I think a lot of us generally know our children's physical limits but when it comes to their emotional limits, do we expect too much as parents?

Emotional development grows and matures just like physical development. We cannot expect an infant to be able to walk at 6 months when they haven't developed the muscle strength to do so. This is similar to how we cannot expect our children to correctly understand emotions when they haven't yet developed or become aware of the emotion.

There are four primary emotions: Joy, Anger, Sadness, and Fear. There are many sub-categories to each of these primary categories as seen below. These emotions develop at different times and aren't developed until 5-7 months.

Now when they've developed these emotions, meaning they are aware of them and also have the ability to express them.

When do they begin to understand the emotion? 
When are they capable of expressing multiple emotions? 

Let us go back to the story of Zach. He could only feel the sadness of leaving preschool; he could not feel the joy of just graduating or being out for summer. Why? Children below the age of five can only express one emotion at a time and when they express it they express it fully and completely and are not capable of expressing or feeling any other emotion. While they are only capable of expressing one emotion they can alternate pretty rapidly between emotions. This is why Zach could only understand and express one emotion- the feeling of sadness while leaving preschool.

A year has past and I have another story about Zach. Earlier this year my eldest brother had his first baby. When they came to visit the family Zach was not happy about the baby being there. My mother tried to talk to him because she knew he was jealous of the attention the baby was getting and he was mad that the baby had come to visit. But no matter how hard my mother tried to get Zach to be happy about having his new nephew visit he remained firm in his emotions. This is typical for a child between the ages of 5 and 7 years. They can express multiple emotions from the same category, but not two different types of emotions, so Zach remained mad and jealous.

Have you ever experienced trying to change a nervous child's emotions about school to excited feelings. You can see they are nervous and you want to fix it so you start trying to pump them up about seeing old friends or telling them about all the fun activities ahead of them. You expect them to change their emotions instantly but this expectation is unreal. The ability to understand and express two contrasting feelings towards an event occurs between the ages of 8 and 11 years. During this time period a child can express being nervous about starting school and then following that emotion can feel excited to be able to see old friends but cannot express both at the same exact time.

Now you may be asking when will my child be capable of expressing or feeling two contrasting emotions simultaneously (aka having mixed emotions about something)?

One has not fully developed the ability to express or feel two contrasting emotions simultaneously until they are between the ages of 10-12 years. At first this may cause your child to feel confused, which can result in anxiety or distress about what they are feeling. Over time they will develop the ability to reason with their emotions. AND....Then puberty hits and I have no emotional advise nor help for that...So Good Luck, you will need it if they were anything like me.

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